Martin Truex Jr.: Just what did NASCAR make illegal? And why isn't the sanctioning body more forthcoming on the issue?
By Mike Mulhern
There are not a lot of smiling faces in the NASCAR garage so far this weekend, and one of the biggest scowls is on Tony Stewart's face.
He won the pole at Atlanta last weekend but then struggled in the 500, just as he's struggled the last several weeks. And he's struggling here too.
That's not just his problem, either, because he's 10th in the standings, and if he finishes the regular season not in the top-10, then he'll upset the battling for the wild card spots in the championship chase, which opens in Chicago next weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Jeff Gordon took the front row Friday night for Saturday night's Richmond 400, the final race of the sport's 26-race regular season. And Kyle Busch, who is one of the race favorites, will start back in 15th. Earnhardt, enjoying his best season in years, is locked into the playoffs, but Gordon and Busch are battling for a wild card playoff spot.
Which means Stewart's troubles could be theirs too.
"We are just frustrated right now," Stewart, 28th for the start, says. "I'm not even worried about the next 10 weeks because I can't even get through this week right now. We are trying to get stuff going."
What's wrong? "I would like to know that too," Stewart grumbles. "I would really like to know that. We just are bad right now.
"I'm starting to question whether somebody else can drive it better than me at this point. I just can't get it to do what I want it to do at any point.
"I will be honest: I'm not happy with any part of my program right now. We have a lot of work to do."
While Friday was very hot and sunny, Saturday night the weather is predicted to change, with a Sunday afternoon 400 a possibility.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While Stewart grumbles, Martin Truex Jr., locked into the playoffs, is happier.
So how does Truex figure this new NASCAR rear-end chassis rule may impact the playoffs? Has NASCAR made a big step toward leveling the playing field by taking away one of Jimmie Johnson's big tricks?
That's what some are saying.
Truex? "That's hard to say. We'll have to wait and see."
The handling trick, legal still here, is not expected to play much of a role in this 400.
"Those types of things that they were doing worked different at different race tracks," Truex says. "Obviously at the high-grip places like Pocono, Michigan, the repaves, that stuff they had worked really well. They were dominant.
"Indianapolis, where the straights are long, the aerodynamics are huge because of the flat corners and the high speeds.
"It's going to be tough to say how much their cars are going to change. We don't know how much the bushings were actually doing. I don't.
"I know they were doing something. We all know they were doing something.
"But I don't think it's just the bushings that are doing it.
"And I don't think them taking away a quarter to three-eighths of an inch of movement in the bushing is going to
slow their cars down half a second.
"I don't see a lot changing.
"But our cars are fast every week, and I feel like we can challenge them whether they have the bushings or not."
Johnson himself is dismissing the new rule as much ado about little.
Truex: "I'm not going to say he's lying. I'm just going to say maybe he's stretching the truth a little bit. I think there's maybe a
little bit more to it than that.
"I think there's a little bit more to it than what he led on."
But what the heck did NASCAR just rule illegal? What part did they just tell Johnson and the Hendrick guys not to run anymore?
Truex, like many here, appears still in the dark:
"I don't know the exact details of the way the rules were written before....I don't even know if the way the rule was written has been changed or if it's brought out new light or if they're really going to keep an eye on it better....
"I don't know if they've let some things slide in the past that maybe they're tightening up on."
Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Brad Keselowski, the driver who was one of the first to make an issue of the Johnson-Hendrick trick, at Indianapolis, and then at Michigan, where he was particularly outspoken, says he's not sure what led NASCAR to change the rules, or if his outspokenness on the issue had effect.
And Keselowski threw a couple more twists into this already cloudy picture.
"I don't think anyone has a complete picture of everything that has transpired over the last three to four months," Keselowski says, about the rear-end piece at issue.
"I'm hesitant to talk any more about it, because it goes back to the perception that I've stated before... that most people have, that follow the sport...that all the cars are the same.
"That's a healthy perception in some ways, and it's unhealthy in other ways... because when you go through a rough stretch, whether it be Carl (Edwards) or somebody else, everyone looks at you and says 'You quit wanting to drive? Or you lost all your talent?’
"That process for allowing those parts to be run was not one that I think we were really comfortable with, or happy with how it played out.
"I don't think that we've seen the last of how that's all going to play out."
Martin Truex Jr. (L) and Brad Keselowsk (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"I equate it to perhaps the NBA -- where you can make a rule saying 'traveling is illegal,' but it's how it's enforced that really matters," Keselowski says. "If it's enforced on LeBron or not on LeBron and on everybody else, it makes for a different game.
"So I think the real challenge is how things are enforced, not necessarily what's wrote down on paper.
"The rules are what's enforced, not what's wrote on paper.
"I don't think it's all played out yet.
"I think it's way too early to say that so-and-so lost their advantage and so-and-so gained one.
"But it certainly has my attention.
"I think there are big questions still to be answered.
"Everything is going to be changed... so we'll just have to see how it all plays out."